Monday, October 8, 2012

How Poisonous Plants Can Be A Good Thing!

              When I first began to write novels, I hated doing research.
I dreaded the idea of having to postpone the writing process and look up things.  Details.  Facts.  
I much preferred to make things up--to imagine a scene or setting.
But gradually something magical happened--I discovered that as I heard a story, or read an article, or gazed at an old photograph, I became inspired.
       Suddenly a new idea would pop into my head and I was able to either enhance the setting, enrich the character I’d created, or complicate the plot that was driving the story forward.  
For example, I was in the thick of writing Wild Point Island, a paranormal romance, about a girl who returns to an island she is banished from as a child because she is obsessed with rescuing her father from an unjust imprisonment. Despite the fact that her identical twin sister joins her and despite the fact that she meets a sexy guy on the island who promises to help, she is never quite sure who can trust.  Her mother has given her the name of an ancient on this island, a woman who helped her when she lived on the island many years before, so my heroine, Ella, goes in search of this woman, this ancient.

Now I decided to make this ancient--Rose--a mentor for Ella while she is on the island. I envisioned that Rose would live in a cottage surrounded by fruit trees that were in bloom--but earlier than usual.  There would also be gardens with flowers and herbs.

Because the island is a mythical island in Pamlico Sound, off the coast of North Carolina, a real geographical place, I needed to research the names of plants that grew on islands in that sound--and this is where the perspiration of the research turned into inspiration. I discovered that some of the local plants were poisonous.  And I loved that fact and decided to include those plants in Rose’s garden.  
When Ella first arrives, she notices the plants that are growing.  Because she is a chemist, she notices some of them are poisonous.  When she meets Rose, Rose offers to make her tea and then does something quite extraordinary--she puts a drop of the poison into the tea.  Rose tells Ellla that she needs the poison to remain strong and healthy.  
You see Ella is no ordinary girl.  She is half human and half revenant.  She is a descendant of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and her ancestors only survived drought and starvation 400 years ago by eating a plant that changed them physiologically into another life form.  This plant almost killed them, but it didn’t.  And now Ella’s dual nature needs this same poison to survive.  
It’s provocative, but it makes sense. 
      And what reader doesn't like to read about poison! 
And I only came up with the idea of the poison and the tea and the dual nature of Ella needing poison because I did the research and discovered that there were these naturally growing wild poisonous plants on the islands in Pamlico Sound.  
      So it's a win/win!
Research isn’t just about “googling” key words and then reading the resulting article.  For me, old photographs are also a valuable research tools.  
Let me explain. 
The title of my novel Wild Point Island refers to the island inhabited by revenants, once human who were changed 400 years ago when they ate a poisonous plant in their struggle to survive.  Now they have immortality, but at a price.  They must remain on the island.   As a result, they’ve developed a very insular society--a bit backward compared to the modern day.  I decided to make their world resemble the Victorian time period.  They’ve progressed from their 1590’s beginning but not as quickly as the modern world.  
There is a restaurant--the Blue Dolphin Restaurant--that acts a portal--for any revenant who risks coming off the island. (Once they step away from the protective atmospere of the island, they age very quickly.)  It is Victorian style on the outside.  But it wasn’t until I find an old photo of the inside of a bar circa 1890, that I knew I’d found the interior the Blue Dolphin. 


       I used that shot to describe what the inside of the restaurant looked like--the Wild West style bar that runs across the front, the shiny mahogany wood of the bar, the white linoleum floor with the black star shapes, and the large circular very old fashioned looking lights that hang from the ceiling. 
I can pick and choose from a great array of details when I want to describe the setting.  
Research can be inspiring!
Stay tuned next month when I share how famed short story writer Junot Diaz uses old photos for his inspiration.  And how Ken Burns, the famous documentary film maker, also relies on old photos to create a world that's over 100 years old.   

1 comment:

Christine Ashworth said...

Kate - what a fabulous post! I love old photos, too - love the one of the interior of the bar! (But I'm guessing the floor would be tile, and not linoleum? Depends on the era I suppose...)

I've GOT to raise this book up on my reading list!

Cheers hon!